Minto Island Growers Seek Balance As Their Farm Expands, Part 2

Reader Contribution by John Clark Vincent
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The following profile has been excerpted from Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon’s New Farm Movement. Read Part 1 of the Minto Island profile.

Our Minto Island Growers duo admit they already have cut back on some of the native plant and timber-oriented operations they originally inherited. But because those endeavors always were the least labor intensive, their load hasn’t lightened all that much. And they are realizing that labor – the cost of it – will be one of the primary factors that shapes the way their farm evolves.

What many people outside the farming industry fail to understand is how much CSAs depend on low-cost labor. For farmers just starting out with a few acres, a little training, and a dream, labor cost is not a priority because they’re happy to simply recoup the cost of their seeds and inputs, put food on the table, and make their lease payment. They’re doing the work themselves and most realize going in that they’re not going to be able to pay themselves a salary during their early years. Growth changes the equation. Labor and the true cost of doing business have an ever increasing influence on how a farm operation evolves.

“In order to keep all these things afloat and have it make sense – and I do think it can make sense – we need to find the right combination of factors that will keep key employees committed to the farm long-term… people who can help manage each component of our operation,” said Chris. “We’ve had great help from family, certainly. And several key employees have been here awhile now and helped manage things, but they’re moving on, and when they do, it will be difficult to start that cycle over again. We just don’t have enough time to do everything.”

“We can’t do it all and do it well,” added Elizabeth. “We’re not managing things as well as we could, so we’re losing money and losing time. We make it work. Honestly, I think we do an amazing job for how much we have going on. But we’re feeling a tinge of burnout, I think.”

Chris added, “Sometimes we’re reluctant to say that to people because there’s a tendency still to romanticize farming a bit and believe that we’re living the dream. And a lot of the time we are living that dream, but it’s really friggin’ hard.”

“We do feel blessed,” continues Elizabeth. “We’re still really stimulated by what we’re doing. We’re both fascinated by the art of growing a diversified farm. But I think no matter what, even if you have that, if you’re doing too much, it just doesn’t work at the end of the day.”

“I think part of it is that in the beginning it was easier to juggle everything because the volume in all of the sectors was lower,” Chris commented. “And each one now – farm stand, food cart, farmers market, CSA – all of them have grown to the point where it’s getting harder to manage.”

Elizabeth and Chris essentially have been overwhelmed by their own success and need to come to terms with that. So now they’re trying to discipline themselves and really keep track of costs. Then attribute those costs to the appropriate sector, because that information is needed to make smart business decisions. Figure out the production costs of mint and just mint. Parse the cost of vegetables, but not just vegetables… vegetables as they relate to CSA costs, farmers market costs, farm stand costs. Plus, they’re trying to be sensitive to the human costs of too much pressure.

“When I think about what I love most, it’s still growing vegetables,” said Elizabeth. “Whenever I’m out on the tractor or looking at the crops, that’s when I’m happiest. With the pure art of growing food. That process is incredibly satisfying.”

It’s that irreplaceable sense of satisfaction that keeps these two earnest and intelligent young people moving forward and focused on their organic farming future.

“We understand that we need to take a hard look at what all this takes,” said Chris, “whether it’s the marketing or what you’re growing or adapting our farming techniques to outside forces. But I’m pretty confident that we have the resilience to adapt. And I guess I don’t question whether or not we’ll be farming here for the rest of our lives because I’ve internalized the fact that it’s assured.”

“I don’t think any other work could be as satisfying or as enriching,” added Elizabeth. “It’s just a matter of finding a little more balance and making decisions that work for us rather than just doing things because we feel that we have to do them. Which is where we started out. I mean, we’re thankful for all the opportunities that have come out way. But I think it’s really easy in agriculture to believe that this work is so important that you’ll sacrifice anything to make it work. I now realize that is not the truth for me personally. I need personal balance. Because the joy you feel doing the work is reflected in what you produce. I want to bring more of the joy back into it. I think we’ll find that.”

And with all of the growing pains and challenges they face, Elizabeth and Chris still would encourage other young people to give farming a try.

“I would say don’t romanticize it, but don’t be afraid to try it,” said Chris. “A lot of people are farming organically and sustainably and they’re making it work, so it is possible. It’s important to recognize whether you’re feeling fulfilled, because if you’re not, then you’re going to run out of energy. But at the same time, it’s good to know that there’s always next year. And it’s amazing and humbling to know that our business is completely at the whim of natural forces. It feels true to the reality of things, of the world. It just feels real.” 

Get your copy of Planting a Future: Profiles from Oregon’s New Farm Movement today!

Photo Credit: (Top) by Lisa D. Holmes. Elizabeth Miller and Chris Jenkins inherited a significant infrastructure when they took over Minto Island Grower, which carries both benefits and challenges. (Middle) by Lisa D. Holmes. CSA operations require a significant investment in labor to get the product to the customer. Growing wonderful row crops like these is only half the battle. (Bottom) by Lisa D. Holmes. U-pick blueberries provide a product with significantly lower labor costs. And who doesn’t love Oregon blueberries? 

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